HR and the Brand: Opportunities for HR Consultants?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Aug 5, 2011
What’s a brand? Is it a logo? A tagline? The effects of a marketing campaign? No—none of the above. The brand represents the impression that customers and other key audiences have about an organization and its products and services. Those impressions are impacted by logos and taglines and marketing campaigns, certainly. But that is only a piece of the process. Their impressions are impacted by the people in these organizations who are involved in delivering the organizations’ products and services—employees.

HR consultants might not think immediately about the role they might play in helping organizations strengthen their brands but, in reality, effective branding starts from the inside out, with employees playing a key role as brand ambassadors. The assessment, documentation, alignment and expression of employee behaviors in support of the brand is sometimes overlooked but represents an opportunity for HR consultants interested in dipping their toes into the world of brand management.

Phyllis Hartman, SPHR, is the principal of PGHR Consulting, Inc., in Ingomar, Pa. The concept of the “employer brand,” said Hartman, is becoming widely recognized, even by small businesses. Still, she says, she’s not entirely sure how well understood the concept is when applied internally. “A lot of companies recognize branding when it comes to customers, but very few have looked at it much when it comes to being branded as the place people want to come to work,” she says. The recession has had an impact on that as well, she notes. In an environment where companies aren’t really focused on hiring, there is also not likely to be a big focus on building a strong employer brand.

But, she sees that changing.

“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of a focus on branding,” she said. In fact, a small company she’s working with that has 19 employees wants to be known in its area as “the place people want to work.” Even though her contact there didn’t use the terminology “employer brand,” she said it’s clear that he “understands the idea.”

Hartman noted that companies are having difficulty finding skilled workers in specific areas. “So now branding is becoming important again because if there are highly qualified, desirable candidates out there, you want to be known as the place to work.”

Working Toward Alignment

David C. Baker is a management consultant with Recourses.com in Nashville, Tenn. He works exclusively with marketing firms that do the external brand platforms for products and services. “One of my predictions is that we’ll move away from branding, migrate through storytelling and finally get to internal alignment,” he said.

“What I’ve seen, time after time, is that companies spend millions—even billions—on external marketing, but most of that is wasted until there is strong internal alignment around values, culture and customer,” he said.

Clearly, there is a role that HR consultants can play, said Jason Carney, SPHR, the human resource director for WorkSmart Systems, a PEO based in Indianapolis. “I think HR should play a huge role for the most basic of reasons—happy employees,” said Carney. “Nobody is more invested in your product than the customer and the employees.”

Unfortunately, it is the rare organization that has recognized the dual impact of the marketing and the HR functions in driving home the brand promise effectively, said Libby Sartain, the principal of Libby Sartain, LLC, in Bastrop, Texas, and the co-author of Brand from the Inside: Eight Essentials to Connect Your Employees to Your Business (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

To do branding right, said Sartain, organizations need to start with their cultures. “Where my work usually starts is developing something like an employee value proposition, or an associate promise, or just an employer brand statement that says who we are, what we stand for and how we live that every day,” she said. That statement should tie to the overall brand of the company. “It’s a way to express how the culture plays out both inside the company and in the talent marketplace.”

It Takes a Village

Because branding is so complex and touches literally every area of the organization from an internal perspective, as well an external environment that could be international, it’s not something that most HR consultants can tackle on their own.

“There are very few consultants, including myself, that are qualified to do the whole thing, soup to nuts,” said Sartain, who said that she brings others into the process to help her as she works with clients. And, she stated: “Luckily, the clients I work with are larger and have internal resources to carry the ball forward once we agree on what the employer brand might be.”

Internally, said Sartain, HR needs to partner with marketing, corporate communications, and even operating departments in some cases. Because marketing and HR might not have close connections in the organizations that HR consultants might encounter, there can be turf issues to deal with from the outset.

“One of the difficulties of pulling this off is trying to figure out who owns it,” acknowledged Baker. “Does marketing own it, or does HR own it? HR people don’t have a lot of experience in marketing, but they have the access, obviously, and the power to do this—so that’s difficult.”

This conflict can lead to turf issues that impact HR consultants beginning at the point of sale, said Carney. “The sale in this area is tougher to make to the marketing people who take branding very seriously and probably have some emotion involved,” said Carney. “For this reason, I think you sell to the top as much as possible. This is a great space for HR to be in—just a potentially tough sell,” he said.

But, the upside can be very positive.

Real, Bottom-Line ROI

While entering the world of branding might seem to be a “soft” area where it might be difficult to demonstrate real, bottom-line impact, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, Baker believes that there is a way to determine mathematically the alignment of an organization, which he equates with a strong brand. One question that Baker feels might help to get at this metric is: “If one of your best friends received an offer to work at this company, would you encourage them to do it?”

He might be on to something. Marketers often point to the strong relevance of the response to their common question to consumers of: “How likely would you be to recommend our company (products or services)?” That’s the marketing half of the brand equation. The HR half of the equation might be employees’ willingness to recommend the organization as a great place to work. And that is certainly something that HR consultants are in a position to impact.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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